By Cathy Hayes
A priest, originally from County Tyrone and now based in the United States, claims he has been “frozen out” of the Catholic Church after calling the police to investigate a fellow clergyman who had shown child-porn images to 14-year-old parishioner.
Fr John A Gallagher (48), from Strabane, Co Tyrone, is now living in a holiday home belonging to one of his friends and parishioners. He says the locks on his parochial house were changed and he was placed on medical leave by his bishop in the Diocese of Palm Beach, FL. Gallagher says he was told by the Catholic Church to put a pedophile priest on a plane back to India rather than cooperate with the police.
Gallagher has been living in the United States since 2000. Prior to this he served in the Long Tower parish in Derry. He is well-known in the Catholic community in the US and has made several religious music records and TV appearances. In 2012 he received a personal note from Pope Benedict XVI thanking him for his work, but Gallagher said this was little comfort as he felt “the wrath” of the Church in the past year.
A local police chief in Palm Beach has also voiced his concern over the treatment of Gallagher and wrote to the Church to complain.
The incident took place in January 2015. Gallagher, who has remained silent on the matter until now, has written to bishops and cardinals in Ireland and America as well as the Vatican but has been unable to locate the Indian clergyman in question. He said he has not received a satisfactory response from the Catholic Church.
The Belfast Telegraph reports that Fr Jose Palimattom, who had been at the parish of the Holy Name of Jesus Christ in West Palm Beach for just one month, approached a 14-year-old boy after Mass. The priest showed the boy as many as 40 images of naked boys. According to ABC news, the tag words in the images included “little boys,” and “young boys 10-18 yoa.”
Palimattom (48), a priest of the Franciscan Province of St Thomas the Apostle in India, was serving a two-year residency at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in West Palm Beach from December 2014.
Police say he was in the first stages of grooming the boy.
The night after Palimattom had shown the young boy the photos he sent him a Facebook message which read “Good night. Sweet dreams.”
The young boy told a friend who reported this to the Church choirmaster, who immediately informed Fr Gallagher.
The Irish priest says that on the night he found out he was told by a Florida Church official, “We need to make him go away, put on a plane.”
He had been instructed to put Fr Palimattom on a plane to Bangalore. Gallagher was also told “do not keep written notes,” by the same official.
All of this has been recorded in documents, filed with the Vatican, by a specialist Canon Lawyer on behalf of Gallagher. These were sent to Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in Rome.
Rather than following the Church’s instruction to “make him go away,” Gallagher interviewed Fr Palimattom along with one of his parishioners, a retired police officer. The parishioner took notes at the meeting.
Palimattom admitted to showing nude pictures of boys to the teen. He also admitted that he had sexually assaulted boys in India before arriving in the US. A few hours later he repeated this confession to detectives from the specialist unit of the West Palm Beach Police.
Gallagher contacted the police, following the rules the Catholic Church had set down after hundreds of cases of sexual abuse carried out by the clergy on children.
At the time the Palm Beach diocese released a statement saying that despite prior investigation they had no knowledge of Palimattom’s previous assaults in India.
They said, “As part of its due diligence, the diocese completed a background screening which also included a screening in India, and received a Certificate of Aptitude from the Minister Provincial in India. During this background process, no prior misconduct was revealed.”
Palimattom admitted, ABC news reported, that the prior assaults were not on record as they had not been reported to police. It was also claimed by the media that Palimattom was under orders from the Church to avoid being in the company of minors without other adults in attendance.
Having reported Palimattom’s actions to the police, and despite the fact that he was following the Catholic Church’s own rules, it was made clear to Gallagher that his actions were not approved of.
He said, “It was made clear to me that what I had done (co-operating with the police) wasn’t what I should have done.
“It was a very distressing time for me and the parish. But we had a special Mass and I told the congregation what had happened. I told them it was now in the hands of the rightful authorities, the police.
“Palimattom was on the local TV news as his arrest became public. I did the right thing.”
He was arrested and his bail set at $10,000. The Catholic Church dealt with the victim’s family through lawyers and an out-of-court settlement was made. Palimattom has been sent back to India to an undisclosed location.
In late April 2015 Gallagher was called to meet with the Bishop of Palm Beach, Gerald Barbarito. Three other Church officials were in attendance. Gallagher was in line to be promoted and was surprised to receive a phone call the day after their meeting telling him he was being demoted.
The Irish priest said, “No reason was given. I asked if I could meet with him again and this was refused. He said if I didn’t wish to be demoted and moved to another parish, I should leave the priesthood.”
Four weeks later Gallagher was rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack. He had become unwell while hearing Confession.
Gallagher said Bishop Barbarito visited him in the hospital but did not anoint him or bring him Communion.
Six days later Gallagher asked Dominican nun, Sister Ann Monahan, to retrieve files on the Palimattom scandal from his office at the Holy Name of Jesus Christ church. She retrieved the files but later when she returned a church official stopped her and took the keys to the building from her. The 84-year-old nun has now been officially retired.
When Gallagher got out of the hospital he found the locks on the parochial house had been changed and a new priest appointed to his parish. Under the bishop’s orders Gallagher was due to leave one month later, in July.
Gallagher said, “I was in shock. I had just suffered a suspected heart attack and wanted to return to my home to recover. Instead, I was homeless.”
In a letter the Bishop suggested that Gallagher needed “treatment” for his mental health. An all-expenses paid trip was offered to him, to a clinic in Pennsylvania. Gallagher refused and has been on paid leave since.
When the police, who were investigating the Palimattom case, learned of Gallagher’s absence they wrote to Church leaders, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection, a group established by Pope Francis in 2014.
Chief Deputy in the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office Michael Gauger, who has been a cop for 44 years, said this was not the first time that the Church has impeded investigations.
He wrote, “Due to Fr Gallagher’s co-operation the case was swiftly resolved and the opportunity for additional crimes was diminished.
“Educated in the pattern of behavior by those engaged in this inappropriate behavior, the crime could have escalated to something physical which would have been devastating to the victim as well as the Catholic Church.”
Chief Deputy Gauger urged Cardinal O’Malley to ensure the Irish priest received “accolades for his compliance with criminal investigators.”
Another detective working on the case had written a memo to Gauger on May 5, 2015, before Gallagher’s heart attack. Detective Debi Phillips also said she had been hindered by the Church in the past and expected to face the same opposition in Gallagher’s case. However, she was wrong.
She wrote, “Reverend Gallagher and his staff provided timely evidence that was needed to arrest and ultimately convict Jose Palimattom for the felony charge of Showing Obscene Material to a Child.
“If it wasn’t for the co-operation … other children would have also been victimized.”
Gallagher communicates with his Bishop, Gerald Barbarito, only through his canon lawyer.
Gallagher did receive a response from Dublin’s Archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, who wrote back to him and left a voice message. Gallagher now believes that the Church in Ireland can help “break the wall of silence over here (in Florida).”
He continued, “Because of the structure of the Church, each diocese is run separately from the other, so there is no broad church.
“This is now 2016 and this is what happens to whistleblowers in the Catholic Church.
“Pope Francis speaks of ridding our church of the crimes of sexual abuse and being open and honest about doing it. I haven’t seen that in Pope Francis’s Church yet.”
When contacted, none of the parties – from Gallagher’s Palm Beach Diocese, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in Rome, or Palimattom’s order in India, the Franciscans Province of St Thomas The Apostle – was available for comment, at the time of this report’s publication.
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